A new experimental treatment has achieved what chemotherapy and bone marrow transplants have failed to (put chronic, relapsing blood cancer into remission). It uses the body’s own natural defense system to attack these cancerous growths.
The treatment involves T cells – a type of immune cell that works as your body’s own personal S.W.A.T. team to detect, surround, and destroy foreign invaders like bacteria or viruses in your body. Cancerous cells have grown too fast for T cells to mount an effective defense, and they can also trick T cells into thinking that they’re a healthy part of the body as opposed to a cancerous growth that needs to be stopped. In experimental treatments at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, evidence shows that Dr. Stanley Riddell has successfully trained T cells to better recognize and eliminate cancer cells in a short time span, allowing cancer to go into remission.
Therapy results on blood cancer
Riddell’s preliminary findings on the success of T cell therapy made a stir at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C. because of his amazing results: 93 percent of the small group of 29 participants with previously incurable or constantly relapsing acute lymphoblastic leukemia have gone into complete remission after undergoing the immune cell therapy.
Another 65 percent of 30 participants with non-hodgkin’s lymphoma have also gone into remission. And while it’s too early to report the results of a small test group of 15 patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, Riddell says that they’re also showing “really high” remission rates. Riddell has treated nearly 100 patients with the T cell therapy.
The T cell treatment is the result of a 10-year collaboration with Dr. Michael Jensen, who is currently conducting trials in children with leukemia and getting similar results. The effect appears to be long-lasting, and could provide a way forward for developing therapies for the more common and harder to treat diseases like breast, colon and lung cancer.
How treatment works
Riddell withdraws a patient’s immune cells in what amounts to a simple blood donation. Then he takes a few weeks to link synthetic receptors called chimeric antigen receptors to the T cells, in order to help them identify cancer cells in the body and destroy them. Once they’re re-infused back into the patient, Riddell basically sits back and lets the T cells do their job. It generally took about 30 to 60 days for cancerous growths to disappear.
Riddell suspects that his T cell therapy worked so well because the cancers he treated were blood cancers. Instead of being bound up in solid tumors, the cancer cells are diffuse throughout the body, and also collect in certain sites where T cells also like to hang out (the bone marrow, blood, lymph nodes and spleen). Riddell hopes that his research can be re-purposed to begin attacking the more common cancers. These types present a special difficulty because solid tumors essentially create their own micro-environments that can turn off an active T cell, suppressing its immune system function.
While his study is still in its earliest stages, he hopes that the technology can become available to the wider public within two to three years.